Triton, sometimes titled Trouble on Triton, by Samuel R. Delany is an odd book by any measure. First published in 1976, this is reread for me. A Google search finds that this book is still talked about a lot. Some consider this a science-fiction classic. Others find it enigmatic and frustrating. After this reading, I understand both reactions.
The novel’s main character is Bron Helstrom. Bron is a recent immigrant to the human settlement on Triton. Neptune’s moon is one of many moons within the solar system that has been colonized. The protagonist becomes enamored with a brilliant street theater producer known as the Spike. Much of the book concerns itself with Bron’s interactions with the Spike, friends and work associates. Toward the end of the book, an interstellar war between the solar system’s moons on one side, and Earth and Mars on the other, heats up. The results are destructive, bloody and tragic. At the same time, Bron’s relationship with the Spike disintegrates, leading Bron to take some radical actions.
Delany’s writing style is unusual. The book falls firmly within the definition of postmodernist literature. The descriptions of objects and people are dense, colorful and, at times, bizarre.
At one point, a street performance directed by the Spike is described,
“Windy, on a large contraption like a rodent’s exercise wheel, bells fixed on his wrists and ankles, rotated head down, head up, head down: A target was painted around his belly button, rings of red, blue, and yellow extending far as circling nipples and knees. The guitar started. As though it were a signal, two men began unrolling an immense carpet across the ground— another mural: This one of some ancient fair with archaic costumes, barkers, and revelers. Verbal disorientation, he thought, listening to the surreal catalogue of the lyrics: The melody was minor, this time rhythmic, more chant than song. “
As the subject of this story is a society that exists more than a hundred years into the future, the weird nature of his imagery makes sense to me.
There are also numerous references to art, literature, music and philosophy. These references are sometimes obvious, but at other times obscure. There is a heavy bias toward postmodern philosophy and art. They often tie into the book’s themes. At one point, a calculus formula is included in the text. There are also many references to science, particularly to physics and biology. At times, this becomes extremely technical. The book includes several appendages that further elaborate on the philosophy and technical aspects of the story. There is a lot of humor in the book. The absurdity of Bron’s character flaws as well as humanity is poked at. However, there are no stream of consciousness passages that are typical of the Post Modernist style.
The prose also includes a striking number of parentheses. In fact, the author uses more parentheses than any other author that I have ever read.
The early chapters are fairly light on plot. They include a lot of character development, philosophy and prose filled with symbolism and thematic elements.
The later chapters include a horrible escalation of the interplanetary war. They also include Bron making the absurd decision to become a woman and having his sexual preference reoriented from a heterosexual man to that of a heterosexual woman. This decision has nothing to do with the often-cited, twenty-first century motivation of being a woman stuck in a male’s body. His reasoning is irrational and ludicrous.
There are many things going on in this book. First, Delany is trying to portray what he believes is a better society than our own. He and others have described it as a utopia. In fact, the author has stated that after reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, he revised his draft of this book to present an alternate version of a utopia. I should note that neither this work nor Le Guin’s portrays a utopia as I understand the term. Instead, these works propose societies that their respective author’s believe to be an improvement upon our own.
The world of Triton is strongly libertarian leaning. This is manifested in many ways. People get to choose different options in life. Some enter associations where they pay high taxes and receive a lot of public services. Others pay little taxes and receive little government services. There is an enormous array of family structures and sexual preferences. There are communes of heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals and asexual individuals as well as mixed groups. Monogamous relationships exist, but they are the exception. People are able to change gender, sexual preference and physical characteristics almost at will. Many take advantage of this ability to metamorphose, but many do not. Delany foresaw medical advances that have brought about the current day ability for people to undergo gender reassignment surgery relatively routinely. In this area, he seems prescient.
Likewise, religion and spiritualty are characterized by profusion of beliefs in this hypothetical society. Sects based on spirituality are everywhere on the colonized moons. These groups range from the benign to the destructive. Diverse belief systems and philosophy abound.
Much of the philosophy related in the book seems to champion a level of thinking that transcends standardized logic. This is a complex work, and this set of ideas is both advocated and criticized. Bron’s profession is a metalogician, which, as per the story, is the study of ways of deducing truth that goes beyond formalized logic.
There is a strong feminist theme in this book. At one point, Bron decides that he is the kind of man who is a protector of society. In his own mind, he links this tendency to being insensitive and uncaring to others, particularly women. Furthermore, he expresses his frustration that most women are unable to appreciate this virtue in men. At one point he ponders,
“real men (because there’s no other way to have it; that’s part of what I know), really deserve more than second-class membership in the species . . .” Bron sighed. “And the species is dying out.” “I also know that that kind of man can’t be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that’s around today..”
The ridiculousness of these views is highlighted when Bron’s friend Lawrence reminds him of the outrageousness of his claims and that the kind of brave men that Bron is championing just killed billions of people in an interplanetary war.
These ideas are further developed when Bron decides to transform into a woman. He does so because he believes that there needs to be more of the kind of woman described above. The results of his transformation are, predictably, not good.
There are many other philosophical and thematic threads to this story. There is also a lot more going on with the characters. I have only scratched the surface above.
This is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult. Though full of ideas, they are presented in enigmatic ways. Some of the philosophy, science and other aspects of the story are impossible to decipher. In interviews, Delany has said that some of it is indeed intentionally baffling nonsense. Bron is an unlikable character who does all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, he causes harm to others. He is amazingly self-centered and self-deceptive. He is an unreliable narrator.
There is so much going on in this book. Its style is strange but creative. It is an effective and unique character study of a narcissistic personality. With that, this novel is not for everyone. It is difficult, and many of Delany’s ideas about society and people are debatable. However, this novel of ideas is not afraid to present and examine all kinds of beliefs. Reading it is like taking a trip through an intellectual fun house. I recommend this book to adventurous readers.